Dear Mark: Testosterone and Marriage, Dangerous Gluten-Free Diets

TESTOSTERONE Portrait of a doctor writing a prescriptionFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering two questions from readers. The first one concerns the reduction in testosterone men experience with marriage. Is it a feature? A flaw? Is it inevitable? After that, I get into a pair of new studies that question the safety of gluten-free diets in the absence of celiac disease. Is your gluten-free diet going to kill you?

Let’s go:


What are your thoughts on the “marriage tanks testosterone” study you linked to today? Is it something we just have to accept?

I question the premise of the ScienceNordic piece: that even though married men see declines in testosterone, it’s totally normal, unlikely to have negative consequences, and likely to improve their ability to be good husbands.

When you look at other demographics, for example, the relationship between marriage and testosterone levels changes. A 2003 study looked at testosterone levels among monogamously married, polygynously married, and unmarried Kenyan Swahili men. Drawing on past research in other populations, the authors predicted that unmarried men would have the highest testosterone, since they were still in “the game” and needed higher T levels to successfully compete for mates. They guessed the men with two wives would have the lowest T of all, since they had the most kids and fatherhood usually lowers T. They were completely wrong.

The guys with two wives had the highest T levels, while the men with one wife had the same T as the unmarried men.

But doesn’t testosterone promote aggression? Above all else, men with a healthy testosterone level enjoy increased self-confidence and drive. This can manifest as “aggression” in the sense that they stand up for themselves and pursue their goals. In other words, it’s workable and even productive. When most people hear “aggression,” they’re imagining “roid rage” and domestic violence and fist fights because someone bumped into you. That’s thankfully not how it works in most people.

In fact, low testosterone, especially coupled with high cortisol, makes men more irritable. Irritability, in its rampant commonality and relative acceptability, is arguably a more corrosive social ill than aggression. We catch onto aggression pretty quickly, and those who are truly overtaken by it usually don’t last long in any partnership.

Irritability, however, is why people flip each other off on the highway, lose their temper in line at the grocery store, or engage in passive aggressive behavior. Irritability can destroy civility, and it’s a slow burn destruction of any marriage. You can’t snap over every little thing and hope to survive as a couple. This isn’t a sitcom where married people snipe each other with witty, cruel comments to canned laughter. Are we justifying irritability because it doesn’t escalate to the level of aggression? What are we tolerating in our personal behavior and in our physical well-being? It’s worth considering—as well as connecting. Balance at home is served by balanced health, hormonal and otherwise.

Mark, looks like they’re attacking gluten-free diets again as unsafe. Any comments?

There was the Harvard study released last week that plotted gluten intake against cardiovascular disease, finding no relationship between the two. When they controlled for refined grain consumption, thus turning gluten into a proxy for whole grains, the relationship became slightly protective at the highest levels of gluten consumption. And I do mean slightly.

I can actually buy this. A 2010 study found that gluten-free diets as commonly practiced rob the gut of fermentable fiber and cause imbalanced gut biomes. Most people get their fermentable fiber through whole grains. They don’t get much, but that’s where they get it.

Don’t just eat junk food, yet gluten-free versions of your favorite foods. At least stoneground whole wheat bread incorporates the entire wheat berry. It’s not hard to beat the nutrient content found in the baked and sliced concoction of potato starch, rice flour, and xanthan gum you just paid $6 for.

Then there was another recent study showing that people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity harbor other evil thoughts about health, like the FDA being untrustworthy. While I know everyone reading this has nothing but the utmost love, respect, and admiration for the Food and Drug Administration, there apparently exist some Udi’s-munching FDA skeptics. How can this be?

Imagine you’ve suffered from unexplained gastric distress most of your remembered life. You’ve eaten all the “heart-healthy” whole grains the experts recommend. You’ve avoided the artery-clogging saturated fat. Still, the pain persists. You finally try giving up grains after stumbling across some nonsensical fad diet website—and you feel better for the first time in many, many years. On those rare occasions when you do eat wheat—your kid’s birthday party, the company potluck—the symptoms return. You’re not celiac, so you figure you’re gluten-sensitive.

You’ll start to wonder about all the other bits of conventional wisdom the experts foist on us. Maybe fat isn’t making us fat. Maybe butter isn’t lethal. Maybe elevated cholesterol isn’t the whole story. Maybe organic food actually is higher in many micronutrients and far lower in pesticide residue. And, yeah, you’ll get some misses. Vaccines can absolutely save lives. Genetically modified food as a concept probably isn’t a priori bad for you (although the pesticides involved almost certainly are). Skepticism is entirely rational.

That’s it for today, folks. I hope I helped you realize that gluten-free diets aren’t killing you, you’re not a monster for questioning the conventional wisdom, and we shouldn’t always expect lower testosterone just because we got hitched.


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

31 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Testosterone and Marriage, Dangerous Gluten-Free Diets”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. You should also point out that the gluten study was done by Harvard’s epidemiological group (aka Walter Willett, who is a co-author) and they generally put out incredibly shoddy work. I’d go so far as to call them unscientific by definition.

    1. I suspect that these various studies are jumping on the fact that many if not most people who go gluten-free continue to eat junk food instead of changing and improving the overall quality of their diet. The Internet is loaded with recipes for gluten-free cakes, cookies, pies, pizza, you-name-it. As all of us here already know, any diet heavy in sweets, desserts, and bready baked goods–even though these things might not contain a speck of gluten–isn’t a very healthy diet, no matter who does the study. .

      1. Completely agree, Shary! It makes me crazy when I see people loading up their grocery carts with gluten free crap. They are probably paying twice as much for it too.

  2. Thanks, yet again, Mark, for encouraging healthy skepticism around conventional “wisdom”…and for offering insight around what trending studies do and don’t mean.

    Glad your voice is out there!

  3. I shake my head with a slight smirk when someone tells me I don’t have enough fermentable fiber (or really just fiber period) in my diet. I say yeah you’re probably right considering spinach, kale, lettuce, artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potato, peppers, onions, plantains, apples, pears, hazelnuts, almonds, chia seeds, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, rutabagas, turnips, carrots, celery, parsnips, and leeks have no fiber in them.

    1. Are you over 80 and every conversation revolves around bowel movements, medications, and doctor appointments? I’m 50 and the only time anyone questioned my fiber intake was when….well, never.

      1. My thoughts exactly. No one, in my 52 years, has ever questioned my fibre intake.

      2. Bit of a douche are we? I’m actually 32, and no I don’t get asked this a lot. However I do have acquaintances and friends who believe grain free diets are too low in fiber. It’s a quick once they understand how many vegetables I eat.

        1. Sorry, Barry, I didn’t mean to be rude. I just thought it was a funny cultural difference.

          1. I was actually directing my comment towards Mike. Sorry for the confusion.

          2. Barry, I am sorry that your comment made me believe that you are old and that all your conversations revolve around “elder care” topics. I do thank you, your initial post and follow-up posts did make me laugh. Both of my responses are jokes. Lighten up or you may not live long enough to brag when you’ve pooped.

    2. Happens to me all the time. I avoid cake at a party or a bagel in the office and am immediately told I shouldn’t worry about dieting. Then I explain how I avoid grains and their knee-jerk reaction is WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR FIBER!?!?!…and my response is very similar to yours Barry!

      1. Yeah I feel like most people who ask that question don’t really understand that when you remove grains at the bottom of the food pyramid and you put vegetables in their place your fiber intake actually increases.

  4. Hmm…this is purely conjecture, but I wonder if men’s lowered testosterone after marriage has anything to do with their new diet? I see a lot of my guy friends go from eating plenty of meat, especially red meat, (and, sure, beer and pizza and nachos…) to eating low-fat, hearthealthywholegrained, soy-packed, quasi-vegetarian fare as soon as their well-meaning wives take over the cooking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Man, I miss bacon/steak/eggs, but my wife really gets on me about my cholesterol if I eat it.”

  5. — It’s DHT (not testosterone) that makes you feel, think & act like an alpha male. —

    For the reasons us men are obsessed with testosterone, we should really be talking about dihydrotestosterone (DHT). For those that don’t know, DHT is the downstream metabolite of testosterone… It is far more androgenic than testosterone. Why should you care… It’s DHT (not testosterone) that makes you feel, think & act like an alpha male. The site anabolicmen lists the following benefits of DHT:

    – DHT is even more potent than testosterone at promoting libido and erection quality
    – Responsible for growth of body hair and linear beard growth
    – Unlike testosterone, DHT cannot be converted into estrogen…
    – DHT is known for its mood, energy, and confidence boosting effects in men
    – Increasing cAMP levels in tissue, DHT stimulates lipolysis and thyroid function
    – Increased DHT levels are strongly linked to higher brain GABA-levels, promoting that calm “alpha male” relaxation in any situation

    Most men here will be happy to know that a primally aligned lifestyle will support high conversion to DHT… I have been obsessed with DHT for years… I test my DHT levels every 3 months… I know everything that increases DHT and I know everything that lowers it… you should too! As a side note, DHT is the only reason that I eat sprouted sorghum everyday… I know, I know… it’s not primal but it is ancient, I sprout it, and it makes a favorable contribution to my DHT conversion.

    The conversion from testosterone to DHT is make possible via the 5-alpha reductase enzyme. That said, be aware of all 5-alpha reductase inhibitors.

    1. Do you know if sprouting makes it more potent as a dht booster?

      1. I don’t know… what I do know is that “sorghum extract” was used in the DHT raising study. You will also find an interesting study showing that sorghum extract improved insulin sensitivity. If all you care about is increasing DHT, I’d go for an extract!

        If you want to balance health, wellness and performance (like me), I’d go for the sprouted variety… wife makes it for me and my alpha boys.

    2. Just read this online…
      From Shauna Roberts, Sprouting for Nutrition.
      One grain to never sprout is sorghum also known as “super millet” because of its cyanide (hydrocyanic acid) content. Dry sorghum has very low levels of cyanide but as sorghum soaks its cyanide content increases immensely which could make it hazardous and perhaps even prove to be fatal. The average amount (61.3 mg) of hydrocyanic acid obtained from sprouts grown from 100g of seed exceeds the average fatal dose for an adult human.

      1. Had no idea… I wonder if cooking the sorghum lessens the cyanide exposure?? Been eating sprouted sorghum for years. I looked at the study… I will no longer be sprouting my sorghum. Wife and I send thanks your way!!

        Key takeaway… if you’re going to eat sorghum, don’t sprout it!!

      2. Perhaps, but I challenge the alleged dangers of eating sprouted sorghum. Before I totally went grain free four years ago I ate many different sprouted grains (never sorghum). Mainly just sprouted oat groats and sprouted einkorn berries, however the website I ordered them from (Sprouted Flour Co.) also sold sprouted sorghum. I doubt any company would be selling a product for human consumption if it were indeed that dangerous.

      3. This is very interesting. Sorry if this if from memory but I recall reading that cyanide can be a very effective anti-cancer agent amongst other things and that a proper nutrition and antioxidant intake may mitigate the downside of cyanide ingestion. Considering this poison is quite common in a lot of raw plants and that our ancestors used to eat to eat their food whole (eg. apple with the seeds) it makes me wonder if this “poison” doesn’t play a role at biochemical level and may have a relation with DHT. Please note this is pure speculation… A certain level of cyanide intake may be manageable by the body but too much at once will kill you, just like most things.

  6. Interesting that the studies on testosterone are conducted on men, if I understand correctly, it’s an important hormone for women as well. My doc said my testosterone levels were way to low and said an increase would result in – yes, more ‘drive’ – not just sex drive, but motivation, enthursiasm. So, if I change the gender of that sentence, for fun: “Above all else, women with a healthy testosterone level enjoy increased self-confidence and drive. This can manifest as “aggression” in the sense that they stand up for themselves and pursue their goals. In other words, it’s workable and even productive.” Better a woman who is happy pursuing her goals than an irritable one, I’d say. Lol.

      1. I’d love to see what you come up with, Mark. It’s fascinating, the dance of hormones, and how they affect us on so many levels.

  7. Very interesting article thanks for clarifying why and how testosterone effects us and thanks for clarifying the gluten free diet though I am not a fan of it I have been hearing a lot of people either saying its the best thing ever for your body and others mocking it as very unhealthy unless you have celiac disease.

  8. “Imagine you’ve suffered from unexplained gastric distress most of your remembered life.” Yep…the whole two paragraphs were exactly how it happened. Thank God for my not so dodgy websites and thank you Mark for the years of information and advise.

  9. I find the distinction between irritability and aggression an important one. And I like the way you framed it–what behaviors are we tolerating from ourselves and others? Cortisol and stress are the real enemies (when chronic).

    And as always, I enjoy reading your thoughtful, nuanced perspective on headline-grabbing studies. Whether they are about hormones or whole wheat, there are always several layers of context to peel back in order to extract anything useful and applicable.

    Keep up the good work!

  10. Testosterone is vital to men’s health, especially the heart.

    But there are problems being around women. One day you help her move some furniture and next you’re out antiquing. Scary.

    John Gray (Mars and Venus author) had a great conversation on Able James podcast on youtube about hormone health for men and women. Both guys are primal oriented. Mr. Gray was plugging a new book on the subject I think.

    Lifestyle has massive effects on hormones. Way more complicated than what simplistic studies can tell.

  11. I think what people label as “aggression” is more often born of that irratability.